Riley reform plan

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 22, 2003

The adjectives sound like descriptors for a Middle Eastern rogue regime: sordid, convoluted, incoherent, laughable and flawed.

Yet those are the way a noted educator and Alabama’s own governor view the document that dictates state law.

"I got interested in the constitution back in college," said Bailey Thomson, a journalism professor at the University of Alabama and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series of editorials he wrote on Alabama’s antiquated constitution. "I studied the sordid history of it, and particularly its anti-democratic features."

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Behind only former Secretary of State Jim Bennett, Thomson has become possibly the most knowledgeable source on the constitution.

We need to "have a cleaner version of what is now a pretty messy, convoluted and incoherent document," he said.

Those hardly are kind words about the basis of law for Alabamians, and they fit well with the adjectives Gov. Bob Riley uses when talking about the constitution.

"It is a flawed document," Riley said. "It’s almost laughable," he added when discussing one provision of the constitution that doesn’t allow counties to make local decisions.

Upon taking office in January, Riley wasted no time addressing the constitutional crisis in Alabama. He appointed a "Citizens’ Constitution Commission" in early February and gave them 120 days to make recommendations on changes that could streamline state government procedures. Not 60 days later, the commission – of which Thomson helped lead – reported back to Riley.

Of the endless number of changes possible for Alabama’s constitution, Riley asked the commission to study five specific areas: home rule, earmarking, a line-item veto for the governor, a supermajority requirement to pass tax bills and recompilation of the constitution.

Home Rule

In Alabama’s system of government - thanks solely to the restrictive language of the constitution - local governments have little control over decisions that affect only their counties.

"If a county wants to set up a water and sewer authority, they have to go to Montgomery and get a bill passed," he said. "If a county wants to create a fire district, they must go to Montgomery and, you guessed it, get a bill passed."

There’s more to the home rule dilemma than dead farm animals, though.

"We’ve got many instances of people having their property values jeopardized by corporate hog farms moving next to them, by quarries opening next to them, by businesses that have foul odors opening next to them, massage parlors, things of that nature," Thomson said.

If local decisions were taken out of the hands of Alabama legislators, citizens would have more control over issues that directly affect them.

"Home rule allows them to protect property values better," Thomson said. "It allows governments to be more efficient."

And that is a key for Riley. In the time legislators spend voting on a bingo parlor in Wetumpka, they could address more critical needs for the state.

See Thursday's Messenger for Riley's plans on earmarkinng, line-item veto, supermajority requirements and recompilation.